After the Civil War, companies like Carhartt, Eloesser-Heynemann, and OshKosh slung cotton coveralls to miners, railroad men, and factory workers. A Bavarian immigrant named Levi Strauss set up shop in San Francisco selling fabric and work-wear. Jacob Davis, an entrepreneurial Reno tailor, bought Strauss’s denim to make workingman’s pants, and added metal rivets to prevent the seams from ripping open. Davis sent two samples of his riveted pants to Strauss, and they patented the innovation together. Soon after, Davis joined Strauss in San Francisco to oversee production in a new factory. In 1890, Strauss assigned the ID number of 501 to their riveted denim “waist overalls.” The Levi’s 501 blue jean—which would become the best-selling garment in human history—was born.There's a good bit of history in the story.
Initially, jeans were proletarian western work-wear, but wealthy easterners inevitably ventured out in search of rugged cowboy authenticity. In 1928, a Vogue writer returned East from a Wyoming dude ranch with a snapshot of herself, “impossibly attired in blue jeans… and a smile that couldn’t be found on all Manhattan Island.” In June 1935, the magazine ran an article titled “Dude Dressing,” possibly one of the first fashion pieces to instruct readers in the art of DIY denim distressing: “What she does is to hurry down to the ranch store and ask for a pair of blue jeans, which she secretly floats the ensuing night in a bathtub of water—the oftener a pair of jeans is laundered, the higher its value, especially if it shrinks to the ‘high-water’ mark. Another innovation—and a most recent one, if I may judge—also goes on in the dead of night, and undoubtedly behind locked doors—an intentional rip here and there in the back of the jeans.”
Around this time, jeans were a nostalgic souvenir from an increasingly closed and diminished western frontier. By the 1930s, the buffalo was all but extinct, the vast majority of Native Americans had been put on reservations, and western farmers had divided up and fenced off the once vast, wide-open land. Levi’s were unavailable east of the Mississippi, making them the quintessential California brand. To the rest of the country, it barely mattered whether the real cowboys wore blue jeans, when movie stars like John Wayne, Will Rogers, Gene Autry, and William S. Hart did.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
A History of Jeans